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Saturday, December 22, 2012

From The Archives: Culture Shock: Good Christmas Cheer or Racist Anachronism?

((  Written By: J.B.A.  ))  This will be my first Christmas in Holland, and like elsewhere Christmas celebrations began early with stores selling seasonal items and Christmas lights going up as early as October.  However, I heard that in Holland there is also a special celebration for Sinta Klaas which starts from Mid-November, and I was very interested in finding out more about this.

Dutch legend has it that every year, 4 weeks before Sinta Klaas Day (December 5th), Sinta Klaas comes from Spain with a large troupe of Zwarte Piets (Black Peters) to help him prepare and distribute gifts to the good children.  Those who were bad received lumps of coal from the Zwarte Piets.   Though this story bears some resemblance to the much celebrated Santa Claus, no where in my life have I heard of Santa Claus having little helpers called Zwarte Piets.  I mean, doesn’t he have elves and reindeers?  And doesn’t he come from Lapland or somewhere colder than Spain?   And by the way who are these Zwarte Piets and why are they called Black Peters?

My questions were soon to be answered for on the 12th of November while in The Hague I witnessed with complete disbelief a procession of several Zwarte Piets who really were white Dutch men and women who had painted their faces in black grease, with painted red lips, gold hooped earrings and thick curly afro wigs.  Following them was Sinta Klaas dressed in a red robe with his traditional long white beard, looking very much like the Saint Nicholas he was supposed to be.  Children cheered, adults took pictures, and the Zwarte Piets, who looked very much like caricatures of Negros, ran around handing out sweets.  How was it that something which appeared obviously racist to me was being encouraged in The Netherlands?
Depending on who is telling the story, Zwarte Piet is either an Ethiopian orphan, who was saved from slavery by Sinter Klaas and now serves Sinta Klaas with gratitude, or a chimney sweep-who didn’t appreciate baths, or even a Moor (conquered by the Spaniards during the Reconquista) who really enjoys doing all the work for his White friend.  He is today commonly depicted as a Negro in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffles of a Renaissance Spaniard.  Some of Zwarte Piet’s supporters insist that far from being a slave to the white man, Piet was really a little black devil Sinter Klaas had to protect us from which is related to a story how St. Nicholas chained and enslaved the devil.  Often portrayed as a mischievous or even mean character, parents used to tell their children that if they have been good, Zwarte Piet will bring them gifts and sweets; but if they have been bad, the evil and mean spirited Zwarte Piet will scoop them up, stuff them in his huge sack and spirit them away to Spain.

The tradition of Zwarte Piet has been criticized for racism and promoting offensive stereotypical views of black people. Thus every year the afro wigs come out of the closets, and every year the pro and anti-Zwarte Piets debate.  Pro-Zwarte Piets say that people should not attach the character to the caricature of a Negro, since this is not how he is perceived in Holland.  Yet reality begs to differ.

I recently met a Dutch woman who was very excited at the thought of being Zwarte Piet for a day.  She was going to dress up as Zwarte Piet and hand out sweets to children in the shops.  She explained to me, (an obviously black woman) that Zwarte Piets were happy “negros” who were cheerful and funny men and liked assisting Sinta Klaas.  Additionally, looking at the Zwarte Piet merchandise (cakes, chocolates, toys and books) it is very difficult not to see the similarity with the conventionalized comic travesty of Black people.  Zwarte Piets in their merchandise always appear googly-eyed, with inky skin, curly afro hair and exaggerated red lips.  Zwarte Piet dolls are like Golliwogs and those who dress up as Zwarte Piet act obediently, submissively and deliberately befuddled. connection to the caricature of a Negro slave then?

Far from saying that all Dutch people are racist, I sincerely believe that the modern Zwarte Piet is it is viewed by the average Dutch person as meaningless fun with no racist intent whatsoever.  The Dutch lady I mentioned above assured me that it was all innocent fun for the children.  However, I am very concerned that young children are taught a very negative image of Black people through this celebration, the merchandise and games.  Pamela Armstron-De Vreeze, an American playwright now living in Holland once wrote that “unfortunately, the story of Zwarte Piet has also taught them that Blacks do the legwork and are threatening, while Whites lead the main event and are godlike.”

The fact that I and other foreigners find this offensive is not irrational or based on a clash of cultures.  Having spoken with them, I find that even non-white Dutch people find it offensive, but over time feel there’s nothing that can be done about it. In Surinam, an ex-Dutch colony, the celebration of Sinta Klaas and Zwarte Piet was so offensive to them, that upon independence it was radically altered.  The Netherlands is considered a liberal country as far as race is concerned.  However in recent times surveys have shown a decrease in racial tolerance with new immigration and integration policies.

While it is true that that the Dutch brought the tradition of Sinta Klaas to New Amsterdam (now New York) which spun into Santa Claus or Father Christmas, it is fortunate that Zwarte Piet didn't make the trip and Santa Claus has elves as helpers instead.   Having recently watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled I can only imagine what would happen to any merchant that tried to sell Zwarte Piet merchandise across the Atlantic or into any other European country that views such characters as very politically incorrect.

((  Photo Credits:  De Goede Sint By Rie Cramer  ))
((  Originally Published In MIMI Magazine's December 2005 Issue, Oh Joy!  ))


Navah Adi said...

Interesting...Many parts of Europe is not as open as some people think. Mocking African people where ever they are scattered is not only a favorite a past time but still a tradition. Racism under the veil of celebration and tradition? It's not about honoring a people if it's at their expense.

Here's a Nov. 19 2012 youtube video
Dutch tradition caught in racist accusations